Dealing with Common Excuses at Swim Practice

If you’re a swim coach, a parent in the stands, or a swimmer yourself, you’ve probably seen or been that swimmer yourself that asks to go to the bathroom right smack in the middle of the hardest main set of the day. As a 10 and under coach, I see a lot of these kinds of “problems” that pop up for swimmers right when the set starts to get tough. But I don’t limit this behavior to young swimmers – I had my fair share of hot showers during “bathroom breaks” in college (sorry coach…).

I started thinking about this post as a funny way to highlight the many antics of swimmers and reminisce on all the things I’ve seen over the years, but as I thought more about it, I think as coaches (and as swim parents), we may see a lot more of this behavior as pools and teams start to open back up post-pandemic. The transition back to grueling practice schedules and busy lives will not be easy after all of this time out of the water, and I’m sure there are going to be a lot of anxious feelings and fears as our swimmers get back in the pool that may manifest in small ways like frequent bathroom breaks, feeling sick, or even outbursts at their coach or other swimmers.

So what kinds of excuses have I seen over the years in my experience as a swimmer, a parent, and a coach, and what’s the best way to handle these issues? As always on this blog, I don’t pretend to be an expert, just share what has worked well for me in my many years on the pool deck. I’m sure a lot of these excuses and tactics will seem familiar to you:

  • Asking to use the bathroom during a main set. I think this is the most classic and most common swimmer way of getting out of a set or getting break – the bathroom emergency. I see this a lot with 10 and unders – we get into our “main” freestyle set (or maybe it’s butterfly day) and swimmers start dropping like flies. But how can you tell if it’s a legitimate bathroom emergency or if they just need a break? For one – are they hustling, or do they get out of the pool and saunter across the pool deck taking their sweet time? Do they say they can wait until a round is over to try and make it in between, or do they need to go right this very second? Do they give you attitude? Is this request coming from a pre-teen or teenage girl? Then maybe – let it slide…
  • Equipment/gear failures. If I had a penny for every kid that came up to me with googles that were too tight or too loose…well, I’d have a lot of pennies. Fins keep falling off? Forgot their kickboard/paddles/buoy and have to go digging through the communal bin for a temporary replacement? These are all good ways to start a set late. What to do? Keep some extra googles close by to hand out if kids need a replacement, or grab some extra fins/kickboards before practice starts and keep them behind the lane. With gear, it could be out of the swimmer’s control (maybe mom and dad can’t afford extra goggles or gear, or don’t know what to buy). If you notice it’s becoming a habit for a certain swimmer, have a conversation with parents after practice to make sure they understand the gear requirements for your swimmers group and encourage the swimmer to use the time before practice to check their gear. As swimmers get older, ultimately it’s their responsibility to show up to practice prepared, so work with your head coach to come up with actions/consequences for repeatedly showing up with missing gear or gear issues.
  • Feeling suddenly sick. This is a tough one – you don’t want to be the coach or parent that tells your swimmer to suck it up and then have someone swim with a fever or throw up in the pool (my worst nightmare), but there are times when I think a sudden perfectly timed headache or belly ache is suspect. My best advise for this type of “excuse” is to know your swimmers, and have an open conversation with parents if you have someone who becomes a frequent offender. Know if you have a swimmer with an underlying condition like asthma or other medical issues and know what steps that parent would like you to take if an issue arises at practice. If your star swimmer looks lackluster in the water and asks to get out, chances are something is brewing. When in doubt, I always err on the side of caution – give the swimmer a break, let them go get a drink of water and sit out for a few minutes to see if the issue clears and if not, send them home for the day.

Ultimately the best way to combat these types of issues that come up during practice (and can end up also being disruptive to other swimmers as well) is to set expectations up front and foster an environment of open communication. You want your swimmers to feel comfortable telling you if there’s an issue. Let swimmers know when the main set is coming and you expect everyone to complete it – and give them a chance for a bathroom break and a gear setup/check before it starts. Help younger swimmers out by using the 5 min before practice to do a quick goggle check and gear inventory. Most importantly, talk to your swimmers and their parents (if necessary) if you see uncharacteristic behavior. Frequent excuses may in response to something you aren’t able to see on the surface – like bullying from other swimmers, pressure at school, or emotional struggles like anxiety or depression.

Most of the time these “swimmer problems” are minor and as a coach, make me chuckle. Now that I am on the other side – the coaching side – I realize how transparent these excuses are and that really, I was fooling no one!

But with teams starting to think about how to reopen and make a safe environment to compete again, I think swimmers will be more nervous to see what kind of shape they’re in, and what practice will feel like after all of these months off. As coaches and parents, we’ll have to pay extra attention those feelings of fear and anxiety and how they may present at practice. For me personally, the stakes are low – I’m just a Masters swimmer doing this for fun. That being said, even I feel nervous about how hard it is going to be to get back in shape. If I feel nervous, think of the stakes for a junior in high school that’s just spent months out of the pool and is now worrying if they’ll be good enough to swim in college. These are uncharted waters we all have to dive back into (hopefully sooner than later).

What’s the craziest excuse you’ve seen (or given)? And more importantly – did you get away with it?

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